Just before I was born, my dad lost his arm in a farming accident. He was repairing a thresher. Despite that, my dad was the handiest person I’ve ever known. One of the few things I remember his struggling with was actually a gift from me: a Leatherman pocketknife. I’d been using Swiss Army knives since my early Scouting days, mostly to whittle whatever I could get my hands on. I broke a lot of blades and files, so I went through a lot of knives. So when a new company called Leatherman launched a pocketknife with thicker, stronger blades in the early 1980s, I bought one. I loved my Leatherman and used it so much that, when my dad’s birthday came up a few months later, I saved up my money and bought him one, too.
That knife was the most cherished of the gifts I gave him, and the most tormenting. The blades and accessories were wedged together so tightly that they were hard to get out using two hands, let alone one. Even though I oiled his knife once in a while, that barely helped. Occasionally, I’d see him resort to using his teeth to open it. He used it all the time, but it was always a struggle.
In the four decades since I gave my dad that knife, Leatherman multi-tools and pocketknives have achieved Kleenex-style shorthand status for the entire multi-tool category — and have spawned countless knockoffs. I’ve surely owned at least 20 different Leatherman tools in my life, buying each new update as soon as it came out. These new knives were always an improvement to the tight-tool issue but never a solution. Even so, the cracked, bent-back fingernails were worth it to have a single tool to grab for opening boxes, tightening screws, and straightening out twists of heavy-gauge wire to install a dimmer switch.
Then, this fall, Leatherman let me test the K4X, a knife from its new Free collection. The new tools use magnets to hold the blades in place, which means you can access any of the accessories with only one hand. In the case of the knife, the blade is spun out with a gentle flick of your thumb. For any of the multi-tools, just push the notch in the hinge of the handle. It really is simple. I even ran it through the ultimate test and tried to pull out the different tools right after cutting my fingernails.
The knife is as versatile as any I’ve owned before. I used the blade and its eight accessory tools — multiple flat-head and Phillips screwdrivers, a bottle opener, a pry tool, a package opener, an awl, and mini-scissors — for everything from opening and prying apart “theft-proof” plastic packaging to cutting through rope and cord. To my wife’s horror, I even used the serrated edge to carve a steak at a Peter Luger Steak House when I found the provided cutlery too dull. The only real difference between my old Leatherman tools and this one is how easy it is to open. My dad would have loved it.